"History is always happening" at Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site
While national acts like Bell Biv Devoe or Gary Allan provide the bulk of the draw for Riverfest, of the 46 musical acts on hand for this weekend's celebrations, 33 hail from the musical expanse in Little Rock. Sure, Steve Miller Band and Ludacris are expected to be awesome as always, but it's Little Rock's finest that provide the spice to the weekend. The hometown Riverfesters consistently pack local venues and, if it were a fair world, would command crowds just as sizable as the featured out-of-towners. Sure, 607 might as well be Kanye West while on the Rev Room stage and Brother Andy & His Big Damn Mouth can get fists at White Water pumping harder than Iron Maiden did in 1984 London, but Riverfest offers the best of local musicians that annual chance to showcase their wares for roughly 200,000 more people than they draw for usual weekend gigs.
Here are a few acts to keep in mind during your next funnel-cake run.
Hands down, one of the greatest, most thoughtful lyricists the state has to offer —certainly one of the most respected songsmiths around — Adam Faucett (4:30 p.m., Saturday, Miller Lite Stage) manages to get under your ribs, effortlessly. Longtime Little Rock institution The Boondogs (1:30 p.m., Saturday, Triple-S Alarm Stage) specialize in immaculately-crafted, restrained bedroom pop. They're followed by new Max Recordings band Dave Raymond & Present Company (3 p.m., Saturday, Triple-S Alarm Stage); fronted by an ex-Mulehead and backed by Batterys and Big Cats, they're as if Luna hailed from Hillcrest.
Across the street, the young ones with the big amps do their thing. Metal revivalists Iron Tongue (3 p.m., Saturday, Bud Light Stage) brings screaming Southern hard rock to the Clinton Library while The See (4:30 p.m., Saturday, Bud Light Stage) rips into its abusively catchy, definingly anthemic guitar rock for the crowds waiting for Uncle Kracker.
The headline act for this year's festival, Ludacris, may just learn a thing or two from the consistently creative, longtime favorite rapper of the Times, 607 (8 p.m., Sunday, Miller Lite Stage). Smart, weird, hilarious and always pushing boundaries, not to mention himself, the emcee is great in local venues but belongs on a stage this size. Expect him to command a mic, the crowd and the stage, but not particularly in that order. Another favorite of this publication, Stella Fancy (1 p.m., Sunday, Triple-S Alarm Stage), takes a collective approach to its bossa-nova-weaned staircase pop that's coy and precious without losing the swaying, pop edge the band's lauded for. Afterwards, Greers Ferry (3 p.m., Sunday, Triple-S Alarm Stage) makes its live debut. Led by prolific singer/songwriter Isaac Alexander, it's yacht rock meets Bread, soft rock with heart. And it features an all-star lineup: Rob Bell (The Easys, the booker/founder of The Arkansas Tent), Brad Williams (The Salty Dogs), Zach Holland (Good Fear), John Crowley (The Easys) and joshua (Velvet Kente). Later, Greg Spradlin (6 p.m., Sunday, Triple-S Alarm Stage) demonstrates why many think he's the state's best guitarist.
Across the festival, two of Little Rock's best rock bands take stage to open for Steve Miller Band. The winners of this year's Musicians Showcase, Brother Andy & His Big Damn Mouth (1:30 p.m., Sunday, Bud Light Stage) has garnered a fevered following in their short career with their brand of familiar yet implacable rock. Underclaire (3 p.m., Sunday, Bud Light Stage) follows with an intelligent, fiery twist on modern rock that appeals to fans of the genre and archetypical music snobs alike.
The Arkansas Tent (again sponsored by Arkansas Times) is back for its third year, holding within it a range of local sounds from gospel to country to shredding bar rock. The Men of Praise & The United Voices (6:30 p.m.) featuring Friendly Womack — yep, that's Bobby's brother — lead off on Friday. It starts the festival off with an opening prayer, so to speak. They're followed by Kemistri featuring Nikki Parish (6:30 p.m.), a seven-piece nu-R&B outfit fronted by a local R&B diva with as good of a set of pipes as you'll find all weekend. Headlining on Friday is Michael Burks (9:30 p.m.), the Camden-raised “Iron Man” himself, who shreds the blues in an inimitable, untamed style. One part Albert Collins, one part Slash, Burks' world-traveled guitar handiwork has earned him a spot as one of the most imposing figures in contemporary blues.
Saturday's Oxford American-sponsored lineup kicks off with the four-man, one-mic bluegrass of Runaway Planet (3 p.m.), one of the fastest, tightest bluegrass acts in the state. It's real men's music played by real-life, hairy, manly men and it's a perfect soundtrack for a little afternoon drinking. The quartet is followed by the jazz-infused, heady experimentalism of Mammoth Orange (4:30 p.m.). These instrumentalists are as close to an under-30 supergroup as you'll find in town. Arguably the greatest band to come out of Little Rock in years, Velvet Kente (6:30 p.m.) follows with its genre-bending, literate and grooving take on songwriting and butt-shaking. One part Leonard Cohen, one part The Roots, with a touch of the best parts of The Police and Bloc Party, the four-piece is effortlessly goosebump-summoning and the definition of required local listening. Blues legend CeDell Davis (8 p.m.) may get around in a Rascal chair these days, but his famous blues licks and sweaty, porch stomp words could smack around any bushy-tailed young gun anyway; he plays with his backing band Brethren. Lee Anthony, founder of True Soul Studios, the legendary stamp of quality for Arkansas musicians, brings together the True Soul Studio Band (9:30 p.m.), a collective responsible for a number of the singles that waxhounds all over the world lust after.
Local songbird with as bonafide a country pedigree as you'll find anywhere, Mandy McBryde (3:30 p.m.), sings heartfelt and witty originals with a twang. It's charming, it's infectious and it's opening up Sunday's lineup. For a town that churns out its fair share of great bar rockers, the trio of Jonathan Wilkins & The Reparations (5 p.m.) stand tall. Beer-splattered, swaggering rock with a dollop of country twang, they're long-standing favorites around town. Sweet Eagle (6:30 p.m.), simply put, is all the best dudes playing the best music. It's shredding, power-chord '80s rock with all the testosterone and none of the glam shtick (thank God). Even with only a handful of shows under their belts, these guys have an unfiltered, metric ton of buzz. Jim Mize (8 p.m.), Fat Possum recording artist and criminally underacknowledged Conway-based musician, follows up with tracks from his Dixiefied oeuvre; right beside the slide guitars and shuffling drums, listen close for his painstaking songwriting. So Hayes Carll (9:30 p.m.) may not technically be an Arkansan, but the Houston-born singer/songwriter graduated from Hendrix in 1998 and one of his albums is entitled “Little Rock,” so if any Texan deserves a double-citizenship, it's Hayes. An heir to the thrones held by Townes Van Zandt and John Prine, he's been celebrated by practically every publication worth its headphones. Heck, even Don Imus called his trademark song “She Left Me For Jesus” the “greatest country song ever.”